Plaudits for Australian Open's SA-born director

Cape Town - It was not one of the handful of South African tennis players competing in the now-completed Australian Open around whom hopes of great achievements and acclaim had optimistically been bandied about - but instead not for the first time the heady accolades are now being reserved for Craig Tiley, the tournament's 57-year-old, Durban-born tournament director and Tennis Australia CEO.

All four singles finalists at tumultuous Melbourne Park, the men's winner Novak Djokovic and the women's titlist Naomi Osaka, who repeated their triumphs at the US Open in September, as well as runners-up Rafael Nadal and Petra  Kvitova, all proclaimed the Australian Open, which attracted a record 800 000 spectators and more than R600 million in prize money, as the best-run of the four throbbing, pinnacle Grand Slam events on the international circuit.

What is more, the four finalists agreed unanimously that the Australian Open had gone from strength since the South African born-and-bred Tiley took over the reins in 2006.

And here is the rub for South African tennis. Tiley, who was captain of the South African Davis Cup team from 1998 to 2001, was effectively forced into cutting his ties with the county's tennis when a blueprint he presented to Tennis South Africa to revolutionise the game here - in an attempt to restore the game's halcyon years between 1960 and 1980 - was rejected as "too ambitious, expensive and unrealistic.''

Tennis Australia clearly has had other ideas and after Tiley continued his coaching career in the United States for three years after leaving South Africa, he accepted an offer to move "Down Under" in 2005 - and the rest is now history.

Meanwhile, the gap between  Australian and South African  tennis prominence has seemingly continued to grow by leaps and bounds.

The one-time popular, acclaimed and prestigious South African Open no longer exists - and but for a brief, encouraging three-year reprieve at the Montecasino Entertainment Centre from 2010 to 2012, has either limped along for 30 years or not taken place at all.

And yet 40 years ago the situation between the South African and Australian national tennis tournaments was to a great degree reversed, to the point where a vibrant South African Open at Doornfontein's Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, master-minded under the astute direction of promoter Owen Williams, aroused  ambitions of usurping the Australian Open's Grand Slam status.

Today, this very suggestion is almost laughable and fictional in its degree - and, worse still, it is the bitter irony that influenced the response to Tiley's proposal.

The once-booming, but now discontinued South African Open is not going anywhere in spite of suggestions that TSA should run the event on a modest basis to maintain what should be an indelible tradition - and with the Australian Open going from strength to strength each year, it acts as a bitter reminder of the reality of the situation.

"I am aware of the difficulties that exist, particularly in securing much-needed financial backing," said Tiley in an interview from Melbourne, "but obstacles are there to overcome and its sad to see South African tennis, for which I still have a strong empathy, falling behind when the sport is booming internationally.

"To start the process," added Tiley, who received his education at the Bryanston High School in Johannesburg and Stellenbosch University, "it is imperative for South Africa to stage a world-class event that attracts top players and interest round the globe.

"A successful, high-profiled event drives wider interest generally," he says. "In this way the support will mushroom and grow.

"What is needed, of course, is government and private enterprise support," added Tiley, "But the message must be brought home that the long-term benefits more than justify any investment, with the Australian Open benefiting the state of Victoria and Melbourne to an annual amount of R3 billion, with sponsors more than happy with their returns as well."